Beware of your “private” emails

I’ve noticed something in recent months that disturbs me and I think it’s probably only going to get worse than to get better. While I won’t give specifics or web addresses, you may have heard of it anyway.

Not long ago I ran across a left-wing website that had published the private email response from a rightwing personality. The long of the short of it is that someone from the website (I assume the blog’s author) exchanged emails with the personality, and not finding satisfaction in the exchange, decided to simply publish the private correspondence for all the world to see.

And that’s my problem. I isn’t necessarily what the two parties were arguing or disagreeing about, it’s the fact that what WAS a private exchange between two individuals became a broadcast for the world to see. And while that might not be “legally” wrong, I think it is morally reprehensible.

And that wasn’t the first time I’d seen that happen. While I don’t know that I’ve seen it happen as to call it an epidemic, I think there is a growing attitude in our country—probably mirrored (IMO) from the growing reliance on government and all things public—that we are giving up our rights to privacy.

Now, if you and I have an email exchange and I want to share what you’ve said to me, I’LL ASK. That’s a different story. Me sharing your personal email is a very severe breach of trust and a lack of personal judgment.

Which brings me to…I recently learned something that disturbs me in this same manner. Now, let me be clear that I have not personally seen what I’m about to write about, but several of my colleagues have verified it’s truth…and that disturbs me even more.

It seems an entire “class”  (meaning one graduation class) of students at the University where I teach share information with one another. What’s the big deal, you ask? That’s a great idea, you say. It’s just a study group, you point out.

If that were all it was, I’d agree wholeheartedly. In fact, I encourage all my classes to work hard to turn their classmates into their first ring in an ever-expanding network of contacts. Networking is key to success in the creative industries! It’s vital to their success.

Instead, this class is publicly sharing (“public,” as on Facebook) confidential and private emails and grades from their professors. Now, grades I could probably overlook. It isn’t unusual for students to want to share their grade with a classmate to see who ‘won’ or even see what the student with the lower grade can do to improve. I get that.

Instead, this class is sharing grades to see if the instructors are consistent. That is a noble idea…probably. But not likely.

Where I think the line gets crossed is in the sharing of private communication in such a public way. If I send you a private email, it is a betrayal of TRUST to take that and post it publicly…even in a semi-private forum. The exception, of course, would be threatening or abusive email—and then that should be shared with someone in authority, not the world.

The problem now is, there is no way that I could ever recommend anyone from that graduating class for any position with any of MY contacts. If they’re doing this now, they’ll do it again. And I value all the contacts in my own network—and I wouldn’t want to risk anyone breaching their trust in that way.

It was probably just a kneejerk reaction from a student that started it all…but it should have been shut down by the first instructor to discover it. It’s our job to not only teach our students to effectively tell good stories, but how to conduct themselves in a professional manner in all phases of their career. Sharing “private” email is not professional by any stretch of the imagination.


Filed under Columns

10 responses to “Beware of your “private” emails

  1. While I have shared almost everything with online classmates, I have NOT shared correspondence with the instructor. However, parhaps you should put that in your syllabus…that you expect those things to be private, and how you feel about future recommendations for those who betray that confidence. Don’t know if it would help, but at least your feelings will be known

  2. An editor once told me the contents of an email are considered the property of the writer and automatically copyrighted (as all of our work is once it’s put into a tangible form). By publishing the emails without permission, the left-wing blogger actually did break the law. If your students shared emails among themselves, they probably wouldn’t be guilty of copyright infringement, but I can understand your distrust of them.

    • That’s interesting to learn about emails. I had never thought of it that way. I know the same is true for whatever we write. Fortunately for us, law is on our side these days. A lot of young writers seem to be overly concerned with “idea-theft.”

  3. Dot

    Sorry you brought in the left-wing/right-wing issue because some will discount this blog as political. But many have been “outed” by someone either accidentally or cluelessly sharing something written in confidence. People have done it to themselves by replying “all” when they didn’t mean to. There should be a 24-hour waiting period before pushing “publish.”

    • Yeah…I probably should have just said “blog.” It would surprise me to learn the same was done with a flip-flop of terms. After reading the comments here, I’m wondering if it is a generational thing?

  4. That’s just horrible Professor Mann. When I was in your class, my classmates and I shared our grades and even the comments you sent us in emails regarding our work. We did this for many reasons, to compare and compete, to help each other figure out how to best act on your comments, or even to vent our frustration over not getting the point of a particular assignment and earning ourselves a substandard grade. But I don’t think any of us would have ever dreamt of publishing your emails on a public website, and I really don’t understand what the point would be to do so.

    For those students that did this and/or anyone else reading this post and these responses; I am a former student of Professor Mann and the Salutatorian of my graduating class. He instructed me during my MFA program in Creative Writing. He’s a tough instructor and worth every minute of his time. He pushed me and challenged me as a student and my writing benefited greatly. Earning a degree online can be extremely stressful and requires an enormous amount of self-discipline to complete, as the individual must become their own taskmaster in every aspect of their learning. Managing one’s reactions to the grading system is part of that self-discipline. Quite often classes can be frustrating and challenging. But the task is not to fight the process. The task is to ignore your gut feelings about writing and trust the opinion of your experienced instructor to take your skills to a professional level.

    Thank you for doing that for me Professor Mann. I for one am glad you never let up on us for a moment. I’m so sorry this happened to you. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.

    • Thank you for the very kind words, Deb. DO let me be clear to point out that as far as I know, nothing was said/shared about/from me. I can’t say this with certainty because I didn’t see it, of course. But the way you describe above seems perfectly fine. If you wrote me an actual postal-letter, I’d share it with my colleagues. But I wouldn’t “publish” it without first asking your permission to do so.
      Sometimes what we think should be common sense…is maybe not. :\

  5. You make a good point. I don’t think we can ever feel that emails are private. But they should be.

  6. I agree, and to be honest, I’ve never thought about it like this before. I just assumed all e-mails would be kept confidential. Thanks for opening my eyes.

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